We have entered into the last week of Advent, the final week of our time of anticipation. Hopefully our emphasis has been on spiritual preparation rather than simply the externals which go along with the approach of Christmas. We have the longest Advent possible this year because the calendar has cycled such that we have a full fourth week. It is not too late to attempt to find some quiet time to allow ourselves a mini-retreat from all the trappings and constant demands for our attention. Perhaps instead of turning on the television we could sit in front of a Nativity scene or crèche in order to truly take in the essence of the season. Indeed the center of attention is the little Child to come, but let us not miss the humility of the others also present there. The stable is humble, the guests are humble – (even the kings knelt in humility) – and the parents are humble. Indeed that is the message of Advent: it is a humble season, calling us into greater humility.
As it is said in Franciscan spirituality, God bent low in entering into our humanity, and therefore we try to prepare our own hearts to be a fitting place for Him to reside. In reflecting upon the scene, we can imagine making our hearts like that simple cave: quiet, humble, and oh, so filled with life. If we really allow ourselves to be attentive, we can become amazed at the humility of it all; yet there is more for us to learn. We are reminded that God chose two very humble people to be the parents of Jesus, our Lord. He could have chosen royalty to be the parents of the King, or He could have chosen wealthy or socially recognizable people, or even a priestly family, such as that of John the Baptist. But instead God chose Mary of Nazareth, a very young woman from a nondescript family of which we know little except the names of her parents, Joachim and Anne; and He chose Joseph whose only ‘pedigree,’ was that he was from the line of David. That lineage is of immense importance spiritually, but it meant very little to anyone at that time. All we know of Joseph besides his family tree is that he was a lowly carpenter, that is, someone of the working class.
God surely chose Mary and Joseph for many reasons, but their humility is what stands out the most at this juncture in Advent. The world has always lacked humility, so to choose two lowly, unknown people to be the parents of the Messiah is a gesture which cries out for our reflection. The most fascinating part of their humility is not from whence they came; rather, it was that they never lost that one special quality which was so deeply ingrained within each of them. They understood the immensity of God’s gesture both in sending His Son into the world and in the fact that He chose them to be His parents. They also recognized the humility of God, in that He chose to send His Son from Heaven into the brokenness of the world and into their lowly family. Neither of them lost their humility no matter what happened after the angel’s voice of announcement faded away. In fact, it seems that both Mary and Joseph continued to grow in humility as time went on.
In Luke’s gospel Mary’s humility is seen from the moment the angel came to her with the joyful announcement and she responded, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” She did not ask for a blueprint of how to proceed or even what the next step would be. Instead her response to God was through action: immediately she journeyed to the hill country to serve her pregnant older cousin, Elizabeth, even though the Child in Mary’s womb was the greater. There are other examples in the gospels which attest to the fact that Mary was familiar with the humility of God. In Matthew’s gospel Mary’s humility can be observed in the way she approached Joseph, who at the time knew nothing of her pregnancy. (Matthew 1:18-25) She trusted in God without any hesitation, open to whatever lay ahead. Thankfully Joseph was equally humble, heeding the message of God insofar as he proceeded without any blueprint either. Both of the parents of Jesus put themselves into God’s care and did everything that He had asked of them. They were both the servants of the Lord.
However, I think Joseph deserves some attention as we reflect upon Advent. I believe that he was the most humble saint who ever lived. I know I am truly ‘splitting hairs’ here, because as noted Mary was incredibly humble, too, but Joseph had even less exposure in the Scripture than even the little Mary received. Joseph was hardly mentioned in Luke’s gospel, except that he was Mary’s husband. His name never appears after Jesus’ birth: it only states that he was in attendance in the Temple when Jesus was presented, and again years later he was in the Temple area when Jesus got left behind and was subsequently found teaching the rabbis. In Matthew’s gospel Joseph has more recognition by name, but even there it is brief. He quietly accepted the baffling message of the angel when told Mary was indeed pregnant with the Son of God, and he also accepted the role of being totally in the background. He was not the father of this Holy Child, but rather was there to give propriety to the birth. However, Joseph had a role that was more than utilitarian. He was chosen because he would be a healthy, loving father to Jesus and because he could teach Jesus the skills He would need. He protected Mary and Jesus from Herod’s soldiers by leading them out of Judea when Jesus’ life was threatened and somehow managed to provide for them in a foreign land. He had the wisdom to continue to trust in God’s messages when it was time to return to their homeland. Joseph set up a household in Nazareth, along with Mary, and he worked as a carpenter to make a living. And then he simply disappeared from the gospels. We hear nothing more of him, assuming that he died before Jesus began His public ministry.
We can learn a lot from Joseph, the humblest man, at the humblest time of the year. After Jesus and Mary, he was the least self-centered person that one can think of… and that is entirely the point: he came after Jesus and Mary in every way. Joseph was not simply over-looked, but rather, he was content to have that role. That contentment is the mark of the truest humility. He was the ‘foster father’ of Jesus and yet, he was satisfied to have no status attached to his role. He was Jesus’ link to the line of David and all the messianic prophecies, yet he claimed no importance in being connected to the fulfillment of God’s promise. His acceptance of being quite important though without the smallest hint of a spotlight is simply astounding. Yet when I look at my crèche scene this Advent, it is the figure of Joseph holding his lamp that catches my attention, inspiring me to pray to be more like him. Perhaps that lamp signifies the greatest gift which Joseph gives to us: the gift of wanting to hold a lamp to illumine the path to Jesus for others, to shine a light away from ourselves and toward the Son of God so that in all we do, we glorify God. Joseph embodies the call to be content where we are, as we are, in whatever role we have been given. He silently calls us to stand at the crib, to be awe-struck at the glory of it all, to be in prayerful contemplation while vigilant to that which might want to move us away from the Christ-child. This seems to be the call of the 4th week in Advent: to ask for the grace to be content with who we are and in whatever role has been given us, acknowledging that even if unseen, what we offer is of the utmost importance since no one else can do that for which we were (individually) created. Perhaps like Joseph, we can be moved to help the poor and forgotten to realize that they have a place of importance in God’s plan, too. And perhaps like Joseph our call is to empower others. Let us embrace the humblest season in which we prepare for the Son of God to enter into our lives anew, and let us embrace Joseph, the humblest of saints, heeding his call to glorify God through our humility.
May we pray for the grace to be content with who we are and the role we have been given! May we seek to emulate the humility of St. Joseph by shining the light of mercy and love to show others the path to Jesus! May we welcome the guests who come into our lives, whether they be shepherds or kings, just as Mary and Joseph were welcoming! May we open our hearts to the forgotten ones, especially the lonely, the poor, the marginalized, and the hardest ones for us to love! And may we create a place for Jesus to come this Christmas that we may worship with joy and gratitude! Marana tha! Come O Lord! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
Note: Next entry will be on January 2, 2017.
1. I chose to use this Advent wreath to begin since we have four full weeks of Advent this year. It seems to be a humble depiction of the candles: the darkness of the hour and the light beckoning us to joyful expectation at the lateness of the season.
2. This is a painting called Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence (also known as The Adoration) by Caravaggio. Unfortunately this painting was stolen, cut out of its frame, in 1969 and has never been recovered. That is a shame because it is stunning in its beauty. I chose this painting because of the humility of the scene. The setting in a stable within the cave is obvious, and everyone in the photo, including the angel, humbly adores the Child. I also chose this because of my reference in the text to Franciscan spirituality: St. Francis is placed within this painting, possibly because he is said to have created the first crèche in history. Admittedly, I am unsure of why St. Lawrence is in the scene, except that he was a Franciscan archdeacon. In researching the painting, it seems Caravaggio painted it for a church in Sicily called San Lorenzo, so that may be why St. Lawrence is so prominent in this scene. For a bit more information go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nativity_with_St._Francis_and_St._Lawrence and also
3. This is a very touching icon by Fr. William Hart McNichols called Mother of God Overshadowed by the Holy Spirit. It is an icon which also depicts the deep humility of Mary. Her head is covered; she seems to be pulling her cloak over her head as if she is gesturing the truth of being the handmaid of the Lord. Her eyes seem to be on the Scripture which she is holding, showing her familiarity with the Word. If you are interested in a copy you can purchase this icon (in a variety of formats) at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/the-mother-of-god-overshadowed-by-the-holy-spirit-118-william-hart-mcnichols.html
4. I took this photo of the stained glass window at the Church of the Visitation in Ein Kerem, Israel. This is the place in the hill country mentioned by Luke in his gospel where Elizabeth lived and gave birth to John the Baptist. I chose this because one can see Elizabeth greeting Mary, probably saying, "Who am I that the mother of my Lord should come to me?" And yet Mary is the one with bowed head in the greatest humility. I was so impressed by the humble stance of Mary that I felt I had to take this photo.
5. This mosaic was in the Church of St. Joseph with is almost next door to the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, Israel. I have never seen an image of Joseph quite like this one. He is not only holding the child Jesus, but he is holding the scroll of the Scriptures. I chose this (beside the fact that it is beautiful) because it is consistent with the icon (image 3, above) by Fr. Bill McNichols. In each icon, Mary and Joseph are holding fast to the Scriptures. This shows their steadfast trust in the promises of God.
6. This is a photo of part of my own crèche. I chose to use it, even though it seems odd that Mary and Joseph are staring at an empty crib. I do not intend any kind of humor here. Rather, I took the photo intentionally. First, it shows our heightened awareness of waiting for the baby Jesus to arrive. Second and the more important intention is that Joseph is holding the lamp which I highlighted in the text. (Notice his right hand.) I have seen Joseph depicted that way in many Nativity scenes. He is lighting the way for the Light of the World, who at that point is a lowly little Child, totally vulnerable.
7. Finally a simple yet stunning icon by Fr. William Hart McNichols called The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ. It can be found at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/the-nativity-of-our-lord-jesus-christ-034-william-hart-mcnichols.html
I chose to end the entry with this because Christmas is coming at the end of this week, so we will have Jesus in our crèches at long last. ~ If you are like me, I do not put the Baby into the crib until Dec. 24 at sundown. That is my personal ritual so that throughout Advent I am longing to see Him there. The scene is intentionally incomplete until He arrives. ~ Also in the icon, note the candle in the hand of Joseph. Once again he is carrying the light, but here it is a thin, humble candle further symbolizing humility. The final reason I chose this is the humility of the scene: a simple cave, the parents and the Child. No one else has arrived yet, so this is their moment of intimacy with Jesus. May your Christmas be filled with the intimacy of this scene so that your heart may be enriched with joy and peace! Blessed Christmas to all!
Heart Speaks to Heart